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Listening to the Leading Product Thinkers

Mike Stern

Mike Stern


December 27, 2018

listening to product thinkers

2018 was a fortunate period for Connected — not just in growth, but in perspective. Between the Connected rebrand and name change, and a collection of wonderful new clients and product launches, it’s been a year of tremendous change and reflection.

Connectors come to work to teach and learn everyday, whether from people we work with directly, or through what we build, share, and discuss. With that in mind, I wanted to share some of the most powerful quotes and ideas that inspired us throughout 2018.

Here’s to building forward into 2019!


Great teams are comprised of ordinary people that are empowered and inspired. — Marty Cagan, Partner at Silicon Valley Product Group; former VP at eBay

Behind great products are great teams. But it’s dangerous to mistake ‘rockstar’ or ‘10xer’ individuals as the foundation of a great team. And it’s counterproductive to look for the ‘perfect’ individuals at the expense of optimizing for the best team dynamics and support. Marty has inspired a lot of the thinking, vision, and values at Connected (dating back to our founding blog post from 2014) and we’re so grateful for his ongoing contribution.


Upgrade your user, not your product. Don’t build better cameras — build better photographers. — Kathy Sierra, Programming instructor and game developer

This might be the simplest way to understand “Jobs-to-be-Done”, a foundational framework for how we think about product at Connected. What consumers really want is a deeper sense of progress, not simple outcomes or features. The more that product organizations tap into what their users really want and who they aspire to be, the better those teams can satisfy those needs through what gets built (or doesn’t). This applies just as much to marketing and strategy departments as it does to software teams. Thanks to Kathy (and Alan Klement) for their continued contribution to the Jobs-to-be-Done framework!


Your roadmap is a prototype for your strategy. — Janna Bastow, Co-Founder of ProdPad and Mind the Product

Too often there’s misalignment between the strategic direction set by directors in a boardroom and the roadmaps being delivered by their product development teams — especially at large, legacy businesses, but even startups too. In an age of rapidly evolving consumer needs and technologies, this misalignment can be deadly. Janna’s quote is a helpful way to articulate how to bridge those two worlds and turn a weakness into a strength. Business leaders should work harder to help product teams understand their vision of success, and product teams should work harder to educate their leaders on their product roadmap and learnings along the way. Thanks, Janna, for all you do for the product community!


Product = Service = Experience = Brand — Tammy Chiasson, EVP Growth and Customer Experience at Connected

In software product development, the traditional lines between terms like product, service, experience, and brand are blurring — to the point that their definitions are almost counterproductive to our craft. Software-powered products are more like living systems than their traditional analog ‘things’. They provide an evolving set of services and experiences; they spurn new branches in the form of new products, platforms, and ecosystems, or they die out. And through every interaction with that system, for consumers and builders alike, a brand comes to life. Tammy’s math makes the point well!


Product teams are missionaries, not mercenaries. — John Doerr, American Investor, and VC

While I haven’t met John personally, when I heard this quote it immediately resonated with the way we’re building our product culture here at Connected. Great products are the fruits of a long-term search for success and meaning — of teams on a mission. This missionary mindset focuses on helping people solve problems and make progress, whereas mercenary teams focus on making a quick buck, often at the expense of the customer. The latter group tends to lose steam during the long journey to monetization and they have a harder time finding product/market fit in the first place.


Dual-Track Development is not Duel-Track Development. — Jeff Patton, Author, Veteran Product Manager, Agile, Lean, UX and Product Evangelist

At Connected, we aspire to help our clients build better products through Product Discovery and Product Delivery under one roof. This is sometimes called “dual-track development” and Jeff’s writing has been really helpful in our journey to get this right. I like to think of dual-track as the perfect marriage of the tenets of User Centred Design and Agile Software Development — approaches that are too often (and mistakenly) perceived at odds with each other.


“DHM”: Delight users in hard-to-copy, margin-enhancing ways — Gib Biddle, Former VP Product, Netflix

It’s hard to find a simpler and more powerful product strategy rubric than this one. It’s also hard to find a kinder and more generous product coach than Gib.


Product Thinking is the new competitive advantage. — Sunny Madra: VP Ford X at Ford Motor Company.

Sunny (and many others at Xtreme Labs) helped shape our thinking on product development when we began our careersRecently, Sunny helped inspire us to chart a different path than the design and development agencies before Connected. The value of including engineers and designers in product discovery isn’t new, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. Sunny and many of the old Xtreme Labs teammates bring an inclusive builder mindset to strategic experiments and growth. This is a foundation for how we build at Connected, and how we leverage Product Thinking more broadly with our partners.


Things happen two ways: gradually, and then suddenly. — Anand Sanwal, CEO of CB Insights

This is actually an Ernest Hemingway quote, but Anand used this in his presentation at CB Transform to talk about what growth and death in business and product actually feels like. Software-powered products are like living (and dying) organisms, and they’re mutable in non-linear ways. Legacy businesses trying to go digital could learn a thing or two from Anand and his firm (and Hemingway!)


We’re all peers before the object. — Michael Sundermeyer, Head of Product Design, Portal team at Facebook; former Design Leader at Google

This is a powerful message that has left a big mark on me and the team at Connected. When it comes to building great products, individuals at all levels and all departments should feel like a peer-group in service of, and admiration for, the potential for building something truly special, for making product impact. It has inspired us to believe that Product Thinking is fundamentally inclusive in its craft, a way of working that flattens org charts and stretches beyond the silos of engineering or design.


* Bonus* The world is eating software now. (So we should watch what we eat, take responsibility for what we produce, and build forward.) — Me 🙂 (Mike Stern, CEO of Connected)

I humbly submit a Connected quote to finish off this post, and our great year at Connected. It’s a take on Marc Andreessen’s prescient 2011 quote: “Software is eating the world”, but with a user-centric spin, and apt for the current tech climate. Also, it’s hardly my own idea, and more like a synthesis of hallway conversations this past year at Connected.

When we first read Marc’s quote, it inspired us to build a new kind of software consultancy. Fast forward to today (and millions of apps and devices later), his prediction has become an understatement. Software-powered products are everywhere, from how we communicate, play, work, eat, move and everything in between. We’ve become codependent with them — symbiotic even! And while it’s generally agreed that technological advances are a net-positive for society, it’s not always net-positive, or clearly one way or the other.

2018 was the watershed moment where we began to appreciate the extreme potential in our craft and also the extreme impact of unintended consequences. Products can succeed in one sense if they reach scale or drive high engagement, but if they ignore their harm to the broader systems they play in, they can take a toll on us collectively and as individuals. The recent mobile app boom sometimes feels like the TV dinner and fast food era in 50’s Americana: cheaper production and distribution, mindless consumption, and some unhealthy consequences realized only years later. It was a necessary step in making progress in how we make and eat food, but not exactly an ideal journey in hindsight.

It can be tempting for us builders to learn of the worst outcomes in our craft and become disillusioned, apologetic, or worse–apathetic and closed off. It has also been tempting for the broader community to rush to create policy and take ethical stances, usually applying old models to new scenarios. In 2018 we grew up a lot as both consumers and producers of software products, but I think we’re still very unsure about how our relationship with tech will and should evolve. 

Here’s some good news that we can always count on, and especially now: consumers still want progress, and builders (like us) can uniquely satisfy that need. 

It should come as no surprise that the most popular purchases this holiday season are meditation apps and software-powered health and fitness products. Turns out that there still are better ways of delighting customers in hard-to-copy ways that can also be good for business.

While I’m grateful for Andreessen’s quote, we should question some of its implications, even if unintended. Software doesn’t eat the world on its own — we build it first. And we build it to satisfy a set of evolving human needs — this relationship is symbiotic, not parasitic. For better and for worse, we’re on a software diet now. As consumers and builders, we need to harness our drive for progress now more than ever before. Build forward. This is the opportunity ahead for all of us in 2019.

With that, it’s time for Connected (and me) to disconnect for the break. Have a wonderful holiday and a happy new year!

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